By Amanda May Metzger
Former Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader said Sunday the race for the 21st Congressional District seat in New York is the most pivotal in the nation for the Green Party.
"It's the most important congressional Green Party race in America by far because of its characteristics," Nader said, speaking of the race in which Matt Funiciello, owner of Rock Hill Bakehouse Cafe in Glens Falls, is facing Republican and Conservative Party candidate Elise Stefanik, a vice president in her family's plywood company and former White House policy adviser from Willsboro and Democratic and Working Families Party candidate Aaron Woolf, a filmmaker from Elizabethtown.
Nader, 80, was in town Sunday for a fundraising brunch for Funiciello at Rare Earth Wine Bar, and then a speech and book signing of his latest, "Unstoppable," at Charles R. Wood Theater.
He was joined by Green Party gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins and Funiciello, the man he named "Democracy's Baker" long ago after getting to know Funiciello while he helped with Nader's presidential campaign.
"We are going to change everything over time because the next step will be to get 10 more of me elected from all around the country, to get other districts to see that it can in fact be done Imagine what a block of 50 independent congresspeople would do right now with a carefully and closely divided congress. They would actually be running the show," Funiciello said at the event.
The Glens Falls events were fundraisers for Funiciello's campaign. Later Sunday the group went to Albany to raise funds for Hawkins.
"He's going into the political arena with business experience, civic experience, and not only does he practice what he preaches, he does something even more difficult. He preaches what he practices. I think he's one of the most encouraging progressive candidates in America today," Nader said. Nader said his latest book covers what appears to be a "major political realignment" as people become increasingly disenfranchised with a two-party system.
But it's an uphill battle to make the message resonate with "hereditary voters" who pull the lever for whatever party their parents did.
"People are trapped by a two-party system that knows how to freeze out competition with ballot-access laws. They keep them off the debates. There's 100 ways, believe me. We've written a book on this," said Nader, whose campaign was "harassed and sued by the Democratic Party," in 2000, he said.
"But I think it's different once you get more local. You can reach more people personally, and that's what Matt's doing. This is a huge district," Nader said, which is why the three upcoming televised debates will be key for voters.
Hawkins, however, is still calling for inclusion in debates with Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Republican candidate, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino. He pointed to recent Siena College polls in both the 21st and 19th congressional districts that show him with 12 percent of the vote.
"By any standard, I should be in. Poll numbers, the fact that we actually represent a party that has achieved ballot status," Hawkins said.
He said the polls and Tuesday's primary results were encouraging.
"That tells me that even though I'm going to be outspent not just 27 to 1 but probably 100 to 1 by Cuomo, I've got a fighting chance," Hawkins said. "I'm not just a protest vote. I'm a vote that will change the politics of New York."
Nader said voters should look beyond right versus left, and there are several ways Green Party candidates, "majoritarians" appeal to those who identify with conservative values. He said a community solar energy industry and value added agriculture are examples.
"More people are interested in fresh fruits and vegetables instead of imported processed fruits from California. That's being shown in the rapid expansion of farmers markets all over. So Republicans eat too, right? They like fresh food too, right? They would like to have their own home-built energy source, too, right? That's why a lot of what Matt and Howie are doing has cross-appeal to Democrats and Republicans once you bring it down to where people live, work and raise their families," Nader said speaking with reporters before his speech.
Hawkins said his tax plan would generate 20 percent more for the state budget and return to a "more progressive tax structure we had in the 1970s." He said 95 percent of people would get a tax cut while the top 5 percent would see rates increase.
"Then we restore revenue-sharing with local governments, which means we can lower the property taxes, so I don't care whether you're a progressive or conservative, you don't want to pay more taxes than you think you ought to," Hawkins said.
He also took issue with the SAFE Act, calling parts of it good but other parts, "silly."
"It was politics, not serious policy making," he said.
"That's another issue where I think if we have a serious discussion on gun rights and gun safety, which most people support, we're going to find a lot of common ground."
Speaking with reporters ahead of his talk to the theater that was about half full, Nader addressed the idea of "spoiler" candidates.
"I look at it the other way around. I'm worried about the Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate taking votes away from Matt. They all have a right to run for election," Nader said. "All are trying to get votes from one another, therefore all are either spoilers of each other or not spoilers. So once you start with the premise of equality of access, the question is never asked, period."
Both candidates also discussed various other elements of their platforms, including a $15 floor for minimum wage.